Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rio Part 5: Christ the Redeemer Statue

We were so excited that the sun was shining (plus we missed a few days of touring around due to the weather) that after hang gliding, we kept on moving and booked a tour bus up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. It is huge and pretty cool, but the view was my favorite part.

Good Friday. SO. MANY. PEOPLE.

I really love this picture. The statue is behind me, and the sun is behind it, casting this shadow on the clouds below.

Lots of people come up to the statue at dusk to watch the sun set...
But as the sun was setting this wall of clouds started moving in
It came in and totally blanketed everything, including the statue. We headed down and were glad we got there in time to see the view....and felt really sorry for the people just arriving in their tour buses!

Rio Part 4: Jumping off a Mountain

So in case we didn't get enough adventure in through scuba diving, the very next day we decided to jump off a mountain (above right) and hang glide down! Because it was the first beautiful sunny day in about a week, not to mention Good Friday (a work holiday in Latin America) the place was packed and we spent hours waiting around. However, my guide or "pilot" was great and it was SO MUCH FUN.  The craziest, and really only scary part, was getting into the air. We had to run off the ramp, below, as fast as we could and into thin air. As the guide said, my only job was to run. If you don't run, you just sort of fall at the end of the ramp. That was all the motivation I needed!  

We stuck the landing!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rio de Janeiro, Part 3: Scuba Diving in Arraial du Cabo, Brazil

I'll be honest with you. I took scuba diving as a P.E. credit in college, and I was totally weirded out by the whole "breathe through your mouth" thing. It all made me pretty claustrophobic. So much so, that when I decided to go on a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands (probably some of the best diving in the world) I opted to see this world from the surface and only snorkelled.
We're laughing because after I got all strapped in, I tried to stand up.
That was harder than I expected!
Then we started planning this trip and Beau said one of the things he wanted to do most was dive-but they have a 2-person minimum to take you out. I hemmed and hawed and explained my slight phobia-and finally I decided to do it. 

The tour group we arranged it with had what they call a "discovery dive" for newbies like me. I've read a lot of terrible reviews about these. Many resorts, especially in Mexico, basically give a crash diving course and bring a big group of inexperienced people out to dive. Inevitably someone has a terrible experience. Luckily for me, this wasn't the case. First Beau, who's been diving since he was a kid, went out with the guide. Meanwhile, the other guide gave me a briefing, but afterwards said "You don't need to know any of what I told you, except to breathe. I'm going to take care of everything." Let me be honest, I was a little relieved by this news. Then he took me in, taking lots of time to make sure I was okay before going below the surface, and going down deeper just a little at a time. He literally HELD MY HAND almost the whole time! Beau's job was to follow us around and not get himself lost, plus use his GoPro to take pictures of course! Here are some of his pictures.

Me and my guide
Beau & I
Check it out-so cool!!!


In the end, I did not have a terrible time and I actually liked it! I'm really glad I went. Plus, I don't have too many pictures from above water but do you see that? The sun is shining! 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rio de Janeiro, Part 2: Favela Tour

After I left you last, we went to a fun nightclub called Zero Zero, where we met some super-nice Americans (who you will see later in this blog), and stayed out until somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:00 a.m. The next morning, we had a favela tour planned. Some certain members of our party, I won't mention any names here, didn't feel so hot the next morning, but we were up and at 'em anyway for our tour!

Favela is basically another word for shantytown, and Brazil and Rio are pretty well known for them. Many are extremely dangerous, but some have been pacified by the government and a constant police presence, and are safe to visit. Tours are a pretty popular thing to offer and there were many options, so I chose one that donated profits to an after-school program in the favela.
 The first favela we saw was called Rocinha, and it is the biggest in Brazil. Side note: since all the favelas are built on the sides of mountains, they have some of the best views of the city.

First surprise: when I pictured the favelas, I imagined the *real* shantytowns I saw going down the ravine outside of Guatemala city, which frequently have mudslides that kill a lot of people and destroy their houses. These, by comparison, were cushy. Stable, built from concrete, and get this: EVERY single home in this favela had a satelite dish. I mean, there was definitely poverty and less-than-ideal living conditions...but you have to have your entertainment, right?

Electricity and the acquisition thereof.

This was painted inside the after-school program location that the tours
give proceeds too, and that was included in the tour.

Most residents don't have an address, and pick up all mail in a neighborhood post office. There aren't streets through many of the neighborhoods either. Everything they own (think mattresses, refrigerators, and the like) has to be moved up in through a maze, up and down stairs, and through narrow hallways.

Surprise #2: All the local residents we came across on our tour were super friendly. I kind of expected them to be either resentful that their neighborhoods were a spectacle to tourists, or trying to make a dime off of it by asking for money. Maybe not the nicest preconceptions, but that's what I sort of expected.
 Surprise #3: A lot of the places were actually kind of cute. You could tell that the residents put effort into making their own place a home, and improving on it when possible with fresh paint, an interesting tile decoration, or the sign below, reportedly added when this resident found out his neighborhood would be visited by tourists. Tranlsated: "Welcome all. Bring beer."
Hmm, I wonder who in the neighborhood has internet access...

According to our guide, who lived in a favela herself, most favelas are still very unsafe, even during the day. Things in Brazil move very, very slowly (hmm, sound familiar?). But they are going in the right direction, hopefully.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rio de Janeiro Part 1

The famous Copacabana Beach.
I always heard it was really crowded here...
Semana Santa, or Easter Week, just represented an opportunity to get one more passport stamp. My friend and coworker Beau and I decided to go to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil! Getting there takes a lot of planning, because we have to get a Brazilian visa to enter the country-which requires a minimum of 3 separate visits to the Brazilian consulate. However, we got all of our paperwork in order. Then there was the matter of getting there physically. We had to fly through the Sao Paulo airport, which in my book earns the title of Worst Airport in the World. We had to take a bus from the tarmac tot he airport, it took well over an hour to get through customs, and we only had a 2-hour layover. We missed our flight. Fortunately, there are so many flights going between Sao Paulo and Rio that they rebooked us on the next flight--which we ALSO almost missed. We were those guys in the check your bags line that had to be called to the front so we'd make it in time. It was a pretty stressful experience, so we were super happy to get on that 2nd flight and make it to our destination!The first couple days we were in Rio, the weather was pretty terrible. It rained and rained and rained! We got through it and it did clear up later on. One night we went to a place that made their own beer (!!!!) which I was very excited about.

I've always imagined drinking a beer on the Copacabana beach...but something was a little different than I imagined...

"They can't pour beer here!

"But at least it's not clear!"

Queen Elizabeth's bum sat in this chair in 1968!
The next day we saw a stadium, Estadio Mario Filho Maracano, that has been rebuilt/renovated to be used in the upcoming World Cup and then the Olympics. The place was massive. Inside was like a museum with tons of exhibits. Soccer is the #1 religion in South America, so these are important places! 
Pele's 1000th Goal Ball

There was a ton of construction going on throughout the city to prepare for these two events.  Unfortunately we weren't able to go to a game while we were there. 

On the way back to our hotel, we took the subway halfway and did some other sightseeing in the rain. One place we saw was the Sao Sebastiao Cathedral. From the outside, it is a really strange-looking church. But inside, the stained-glass walls are beautiful. There are four different walls that go all the way up to the top. After awhile we got tired of wandering around in the rain so we decided to head back to our hotel to rest up for going out later that evening. 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Weekend Getaway: Caacupé and Tobati

Our main "mentor teachers" organized a trip out of town for a weekend. The hotels we found online were ridiculously expensive, and since we were a small group we decided to just wing it and see where we ended up. Our group included our mentor teachers, their two daughters, myself, and another teacher and his fiance, who was visiting and will be moving to Paraguay next school year After stopping for lomitos and ice cream (two Paraguayan staples) on the way out of town, we headed to Caacupé. The main attraction here is a church. While that could be said of most small towns in Latin America, this one is especially important. One of the most important Paraguayan holidays is the Day of the Virgin of Caacupé. One million Paraguayans (out of a population of 6 million) go to Caacupé for this holiday every December 8, many walking all or part of the way on foot. The carved virgin statue is inside the church. Below is the church. I always feel super weird even being a tourist inside a church because there are always people worshiping, so I don't generally take pictures inside. You'll have to go there yourself to see the virgin! 
 After we checked out the plaza, some art for sale, and a playground for the littles, we piled back into the car and started driving. I don't remember WHERE we were actually trying to go but here's what happened. We passed through the town of Tobati, passed what we thought was a turnoff, turned on the next street, were driving on random backroads directed by Molly, who seemed to have a psychic connection thing going on, randomly telling Tim to "turn here!" He obliged and all of a sudden we were in front of this beautiful hotel. We immediately agreed as a group that we should see if they had rooms for us for that night-and they did. So that's where we stayed. It was beautiful!
I don't even remember the last time I saw a king size bed! All for me!!
We all immediately checked into our rooms and went down to the pool where we spent the afternoon playing in the water, taking turns ordering beer, practicing our Spanish with Paraguayan visitors, relaxing, playing cards poolside, and finally enjoying a beautiful sunset.

After taking care of business (which involved a nap for the extremely jet-lagged Lisa, and a birthday call to a friend at home for me), we regrouped for a quiet dinner on site at the hotel and retired to our rooms for the night. After breakfast and a trip to the on-site playground the next morning, we went to the very nearby Artisan Market, which is well known in Tobati. They had all SORTS of things. Tim and Molly added to their collection of the 7 Paraguayan "mitos" or myths, and I bought a hammock.

While we were here, we also saw some really cool metalwork made by a local artist. In my next blog post I'll show what we saw when we stopped by his home on our way back to Asuncion.